Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Do you go to a Jurassic Park movie for the story, characters and wonder that the idea of dinosaurs living in the modern world would evoke, or do you go to see a monster movie, you know with visually interesting creatures ripping up various human characters in a variety of ways? Your answer to this dichotomy will largely tell you whether you are going to like this movie or hate it. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a creature feature. It is not an adventure movie or a science debate, it is people running and screaming from monsters. Sometimes those people get away, sometimes they don’t. If the characters were more well drawn, you would probably care which, but frankly, this film could not be bothered to worry about actually killing one of our somewhat sympathetic heroes, mostly it is just concerned with mayhem.

Director J.A. Bayona appears to be a critics darling, having made three widely praised film. I’ve not seen “The Orphanage” but I did see “The Impossible” and  “A Monster Calls“.  These are both fine films with effecting personal and emotional weight to them. I do notice however, that he is not a credited screenwriter for either of those film, nor is he credited for “Fallen Kingdom”. It appears then, that the elements that make his material work best will be the way he frames and shoots the story, rather than the story itself. Those folks who respect his work may want to go back and see if what they really like is the concept or screenplay rather than the direction.  He has put together a reasonable thrill ride for us, but there is very little in any of this which would lead you to believe he is more of a visionary than a craftsman. Aside from two or three nice little moments, this is a picture that could have been assembled by anybody capable of the logistics required to move this mass of technology.

Just two scenes seem to have the visually creative touch that was present in the two of his movies I’ve seen. First, there is a clever moment when an expedition lands on the island that contained the former amusement park, and we see their vehicle driving down main street as we look at a tracking shot from behind the demolished vendor’s booths and stores. We see some stuffed dinosaur toys back-lit against the vehicle, until one of them runs off revealing that it actually was a small dinosaur. That was effective. There is another scene late in the film where the reflection of a dinosaur if superimposed over the face of a character in the reflections from a display window in a diorama. That works well also. Otherwise, there are really no surprises. Monsters do what they are expected to do, we get a couple of false paths that turn to jokes and a few jump scares that work effectively, and that’s about it.

Chris Pratt and Dallas Bryce Howard are probably worth what they were paid for the film. She is a lot more appealing in this story than in the first re-boot “Jurassic World“, and he continues to bring enough humor to make the movie lively, or at least lively at times. Her conversion to animal rights activist seems a little week, but she does work well with the dinosaurs and Pratt, especially on the island sequence. Pratt gets to make most of the jokes in the film which is fine because that’s what he does best. When he has to be a combination of Rambo, Bruce Lee and John McClane, it is harder to take the movie seriously. Two fine actors are wasted in the movie and another one has a felony committed in his name. Ted Levine, who is so memorable as “Buffalo Bill” from “The Silence of the Lambs”, has a thankless role as a villain, who is so stupid as to demand to be paid when crazed animals have disrupted an auction, and then goes souvenir seeking in the most dangerous scenario imaginable in this plot. Geraldine Chaplain, who was in “Dr. Zhivago”, also has a thankless role that sets her up as an important character in the household where the climax of the film takes place, and then she is dropped completely.

The major felony is the misuse of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm character form the first two Jurassic Park movies. In those films, he was the voice of reason with a sardonic voice and the ability to let the air out of someone too inflated with themselves, in a sarcastic and hysterical manner. In this film, he has two brief scenes that bookend the movie. He sits behind a table and pontificates to a Congressional panel on the risks of the Dinosaurs being removed from potential danger. I don’t think he has a single joke, facial moment or tone that makes his appearance here essential. Someone else in the movie makes a joke about writing fortune cookies, that’s what all of Goldblum’s dialogue is. His aphorisms about DNA would make Jeremy Rifkin blush with overkill.

This looks impressive on the side of a tall building in L.A.

Tomorrow on a podcast, I suspect that most of the participants will be happy to poke holes in the logic of the story. Believe you me, that’s what I expect to do in order to make the conversation amusing. However, there are some good action sequences in the film. The opening mission to the park to recover some DNA was well staged and there were some clever moments in it. The sequence with Claire and tech guy/coward Franklin Web, where they are trapped in a control room at the park was perfectly fine at giving us tense jump scares and some funny moments. I also enjoyed the scene in you young girl’s bedroom as she hides from a monster under her covers. Chris Pratt’s hero mode is more functional there. Pratt got some good laughs in a scene where he and Howard are getting a blood donation from a T-Rex. So there is fun to be had, but you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it.

Ranking the Jurassic Park films seems to be one of the things that people are doing as they talk about this film. I have some opinions on that as well, but I will save those for the Lambcast. Otherwise I suggest you see the film, load up on popcorn, candy and soda, because that is where all the nutritional value of your visit to the theater will be.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

The other night, we decided to watch the 1977 Disney film of “Pete’s Dragon”. My kids watched it a lot when they were young and it seemed like a good thing to do in getting up for the remake that opened this weekend. As I watched it, I remembered how painful it was to experience back when the kids were four or five. It is looong. The songs are not memorable at all, and the actors either ham it up excessively or they are stiff as a board. Whatever the new film was going to bring us had to be better than this misbegotten piece of nostalgia that I hope never to have to sleep through, I mean watch, again.

Happily I can report that I was correct, this new version is a substantial improvement and will be an excellent family film for kids over the age of seven or eight. The one major reservation I have is that the film begins with a family vaction that goes dramatically wrong. It is traumatizing and the little guys might be scared and have nightmares about what happens. It is a scene that is done in the gentlest of ways but it is still tough to take when you are with your family. Once the opening five minutes is passed, the rest of the movie is a delight with some poignant moments of sadness but nothing that the kids won’t have seen in a dozen other stories.

 

In a way, this is a different version of “The Jungle Book“, with an orphan being raised by a wild anima but ultimately needing to be returned to a human society.  The animal in question does not really talk or sing but that does not mean that it does not emote. “Elliot” was a cartoon in the musical version and he was not always a creature that you could identify with. Ever since CGI has been used in movie special effects, Dragons have been a subject. From Dragonheart, to Reign of Fire, up through The Hobbit Films and Game of Thrones, these animals have been used as characters . Most of the time they are terrifying, sometimes they have voices but always they have been dangerous and scaly. The film makers here have managed to make a dragon lovable without stripping him of his dignity. Anyone who has owned a dog will see familiar expressions and behaviors expressed by Elliot. This is a story about a boy and his dog, who happens to be a dragon. The closest I’ve seen to this style dragon in the past is “the Luck Dragon” from “The Neverending Story“. Elliot is furry and the face is expressive, I also liked the addition of his body colors changing in response to a particular touch.

Bryce Dallas Howard makes back to back appearances in consecutive years in movies featuring large animals run amuck. Unlike “Jurassic World“, she is unlikely to get eaten, but her costar is a CGI invention. Robert Redford is in this film in a peripheral way, but as usual he is a welcome presence. I did not know that Wes Bentley and Karl Urban were in the film so that was a nice surprise. Young Oakes Fergley, who plays “Pete” is a good find for the part of a young child living in the wilderness who becomes a fish out of water in suburban/human surroundings. He is still very young so it is hard to say what his potential is but he is already a better actor than the child cast in the 1977 film.

There will not be any great twists in the story, it does feel in fact very much like an older Disney film when it comes to the plot. What makes it better than those creaky films like “Blackbeard’s Ghost” or “The Love Bug” is the quality of the production and the actors involved. Everyone treats the story here seriously and the events that happen only stretch credibility a little bit at the climax. The last twenty minutes feels right out of a dozen other films even though the plot is different and the characters are not the same either. If you are a sentimental adult who can suspend their cynicism  for an hour and a half, or if you have kids and you want them to see a quality family picture, than “Pete’s Dragon” should do the trick, and you won’t have to get an annoying Helen Reddy song out of your head afterwards.

Jurassic World

The world is a different place than it was twenty two years ago when the original “Jurassic Park” stormed onto screens, made CGI the standard by which special effects would be measured from then on, and crowned the king of Hollywood with his greatest commercial success the same year he achieved his greatest artistic success with “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg’s dinosaur movie was the start of freeing our imaginations with digital images and the story was fresh. Here we are all those years later, and everyone knows that the dinosaurs are going to be spectacular, and the setting is going to be lush and the action intense. Even if it is the first time you see any of the Jurassic Park films, “Jurassic World” can never repeat the magic of that 1993 event picture.

Having said that, and giving anybody with bloated expectations a way to let a little air out of the bubble, “Jurassic World” is a terrific summer film that should fill the pockets of everyone involved because it does exactly what the times call for. It entertains us with spectacle, danger and action. There is one important element missing from this film that was much more abundant in it’s three precursors, humor. Other than that, you will have a great time at the movies as long as you are not really expecting a science lesson.

The park has been open for a while now. It is still unclear to me after the events of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”, how “i-gen”, the company founded by John Hammond can still exist. They must have had their assets sold off to pay for the lawsuits that would have followed the company after the T-Rex eats half of San Diego. They could not even afford security to keep people off of site B in the third Jurassic Park film. That is all just nit picking however, the point of this movie is to give us something to marvel at and be frightened of. The real monsters continue to be the scientists who play with genetic power and don’t consider the consequences. These films must have inspired a lot of the Monsanto hate out there, because the researchers come across as indifferent to the work they are doing and it’s consequence, they simply see it as something to exploit.  B.D. Wong as Dr. Henry Wu is older but not wiser, making all new mistakes with the current endeavor. Vincent D’Onofrio has the Paul Reiser role as a corporate hack who has visions of defense contracts dancing through his head. It’s Bryce Dallas-Howard who ultimately has to redeem herself as a cold fish of an executive, looking at marketing before she considers the ethical and responsible things to do. She does get to the point where we do root for her, but in the beginning, she is as guilty as anyone for what happens.

If you were worried that the velociraptors of the early films had turned into trained house pets, be assured that is not the case. Chris Pratt, channeling Harrison Ford, is working with the deadly pack hunters, but the story is much more realistic than the trailer would lead you to believe. He needed to have more of “Star Lords” one liners and facial ticks, to make the movie sing more. The fault is not in the performance but the script. Jeff Goldblum owned the first two movies with his sardonic sense of humor and his well timed jabs at the corporation and scientific processes. Pratt only gets one or two moments to show off his comic chops, and then once the story takes off, there are no moments of levity at all.

There are several thrill moments in the film, but nothing to match that T-Rex attack from “Jurassic Park”. The sequence with the gyroglobes is meant to stand in for the attack on the jeep in the first film, and it does have a few great elements to it, but it is not as sustained as that first brilliant sequence that Spielberg used all of his skills to put together. Director Colin Trevorrow copies the master but can’t quite match the terror achieved in that sequence. His strongest effort is in the final fight sequence which does manage to use the characters , both real and digital, to their best effect. Composer Michael Giacchino has done a good job in building a soundtrack for the movie but his work will always be overshadowed here by the theme from the first film, composed by John Williams. That motif is repeated in several sections and at the end of the picture it is as if Williams himself did the score for this. It may be an unfair thing for me to say, but it was the way I felt about it.

The movie succeeds in creating a monster to chase the characters that really is scary. The park looks fantastic and reasonably crowed, at least until the climax. I would want to do several of the rides and attractions we saw in the build up. Kayaking with dinosaurs, riding a Triceratops, or traveling by monorail through a forest are all attractions that would made me want to go through the turnstile. Some times the themes get a little big for the movie. Asset management and investment are certainly important, but a guy who manages to make it to being the eighth richest man on the planet can surely see that losing a $26 million project is small potatoes next to the disaster staring him in the face. Of course if people did not make some stupid choices, there would be no movie for us to thrill to, so ignore some of the improbable s, and sit back for what will surely be the thrill ride of the summer.